Sam Harris is no friend of Christianity.
The author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris also is co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the promotion of science and secular values. Even so, I think Harris’ latest book offers something useful for believers.
“The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” posits that science - not religion - should be the rightful arbiter of morality. Ancient texts, clerical edicts, denominational traditions and the like can be misguided and often harmful when determining right and wrong, he argues. Instead, Harris believes an act should be considered moral or immoral depending on demonstrable scientific evidence that it either enhances or detracts from a conscious creature’s “well-being.”
In other words, if it’s good for us – in a measurable, life-enhancing way – it’s good. If it’s bad for our state of well-being, it’s bad.
Harris likes to push buttons with his brand of secularism – on a recent Daily Show appearance he said, “Anyone in this room could improve the Ten Commandments in five seconds.” Even so, I think he is on to something here. Harris’ theory might actually be useful when Christians find themselves arguing over how to interpret Scripture in relation to certain moral issues. Could factoring in dispassionate science be one way to remove human (and therefore fallible) interpretation from the equation?
Let’s consider one of those Ten Commandments: “…the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” This has been interpreted in countless ways over millennia. For disobeying it, followers of Jehovah have suffered everything from whispers during church coffee hour to death. In my own lifetime, opinions on how to properly observe the Sabbath have drastically changed. Could science possibly be of any help?
In Harris’ terms, observing a specific day of the week according to precisely defined strictures has no “well being” benefit. But taking a regular rest to recharge your body – and yes, Sam Harris, your spirit – has proven health benefits. We’re a better people for it. So in a way, Harris’ scientific morality supports the idea of the Sabbath – as long as we don’t get too wrapped up in the exact way everyone should follow it (and punish them if they don’t).
We could apply this sort of thinking to more contentious areas: The role of women in the church. Tithing. Homosexuality. Do you see ways Harris’ theory can help us find a common ground when it comes to these – or other - topics that are fiercely debated within the church?